Zorrie

The arc of a 20th century life (rural Indiana, through the Depression, WWII, contemporary times): In William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, he advised writers to “simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.” Award-winning, Brown University Professor of Literary Arts Laird Hunt’s latest novel embraces that lofty goal. Zorrie is a magnificent read, boiled down to a slim 176 pages packed with humanity.

The tender prose sends an existential message about an honest, hardworking life of basic yet deep values that strikes a melancholy, nostalgic, and hopeful tone. It feels as if Hunt sat down to craft soulful words for the purpose of comforting us through dark times into the light.

A “life is everything” message written with such gentleness, grief, sorrow, and hopefulness, remarkable for how it touches us in so few words as we mourn the lives of loved ones we’ve lost during historic times. Pained by so much suffering and isolation, and yet offering a message of finding a way to “think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” Words one of the characters says, inspired by the words of a brave young girl, Anne Frank, in her famous WWII diary.

The novel’s overarching theme is about finding ways to seek the light amidst the darkness. It’s prefaced by a lovely quote from the French writer Gustave Flaubert from his short story A Simple Heart, imparting the same theme, referencing “light sparkling in the night sky like a company of stars; beyond the sea stretched dimly.”

Hunt tells us in his Acknowledgements Flaubert’s story was among the books he “kept close to me as I wrote.” Also in this list: Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl; Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; and the philosophical writings of France’s Michael de Montaigne and Greece’s ancient Herodotus. Other classical works appear in the book, offering wisdom and puncturing stereotypes about rural life as Zorrie is set in the fertile farmlands of Indiana’s Clinton County.

Zorrie loves Indiana’s soil, “the smell of the clay-rich dirt.” “Dirt she had bloomed out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew.” She’s a “giver of gifts” straight from nature’s bounties: “an abandoned nest, arrowheads, monarch wings, and turtle shells.” Someone who hears birdsong as a harbinger “to sing the world back into being.” Nature is fundamental to Zorrie’s ability to see lightness. As are warm, sustaining memories of love, friendship, and companionship as the novel opens when she’s in her fifties and then looks back on her life.

This is not the only novel Hunt has set in Indiana. For instance, Indiana, Indiana apparently (to-be-read) introduces the male character who quoted Anne Frank’s poignant words, Noah Adams. In it is the woman he fell in love with, Opal. In Zorrie, Opal is living in a mental institution with Noah longing for her. He’s the son of the scholarly farmer, Virgil, and his wife, Ruby, close by neighbors and dear friends over many years. 

Organized into six parts, each a chapter written in long, flowing narrative prose, each prefaced with a few poetic words that allude to the same sad versus hopeful theme, starting with Part I’s: “Out of this shadow, into the sun.”

In quiet, assured prose, the opening sentence serves as a prologue to Zorrie’s backstory:

“Zorrie Underwood had been known throughout the county as a hard worker for more than fifty years, so it troubled her when finally the hoe started slipping through her hands, the paring knife from her fingers, the breath in shallow bursts in her lungs, and smack down in the middle of the day, she had to lie down.”

Already we’re drawn to her industrious, down-to-earth, noble life. Orphaned young, both her parents died from diphtheria, an infectious disease essentially eradicated in the US thanks to a childhood vaccine, which in the 1920s killed hundreds of thousands. Ever so timely as we’re hoping new vaccines will bring us light after a dark year.

Raised by a bitter aunt who scolded Zorrie’s positive attitude, saying “hope’ll lead you straight into the bushes,” she dies when Zorrie was twenty-one, leaving her without any family or means of support. Despite her aunt’s chronic grumblings and her lonely plight, “hope had nonetheless often found a way to seep out and surprise her, bow graciously, extend its hand, ask her to dance.” The novel is full of grace.

Aware from the start that Zorrie’s health was compromised, we soon learn why. Tragic for Zorrie, and historically, as she was one of those young women who worked at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois before it was known that painting the face dials of clock pieces with radioactive powder was slowly poisoning them.

Hunt calls the yellow, glowing-in-the-dark powder “Luna powder,” a name that refers to the Moon, symbolic of the novel’s eternal theme of the perpetual cycling of seasons, the cycles of life. Indeed, Zorrie’s story cycles through the years and seasons of her life from early childhood to coming-of-age to adulthood to growing old till eternity. “Divine,” “eternal,” and “eternity” are prevalent words and universal themes seen from religious, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives.

The radium factory is key to the story health-wise and in terms of how powerfully attached someone’s image of Home can be. Zorrie made two dear friends on the job, Janie and Marie, the first real girlfriends she had, but she missed Indiana’s soil so much she left them when she didn’t even have a physical home. Returning to her homeland, she finds that farmhouse through the blessings of love and different kinds of friendships. Virgil, Ruby, and Noah, most significantly. 

Zorrie and her girlfriends called themselves “Ghost Girls” after they realized the powder on their hands and faces, having licked it onto their paintbrushes, glowed. Unaware of how sinister it was, they rejoiced in how they could “stand luminous under the stars” like Flaubert’s quote, feeling special, valued, for the first time in their lives.

While Zorrie stays in touch with Janie and Marie from time to time throughout the years, sometimes desiring to see them, mostly they remain fond memories of happy times. As other friends and neighbors cycle in and out of her life more memories buoy her as her life narrows and becomes lonely once again. A dog named Oats enters her life unexpectedly, beautifully evoking the soul-mate companionship dog lovers feel, especially people living alone or isolated. No surprise, then, that one of the outcomes of pandemic quarantining has been a surge in animal adoptions. Also, more baking and gardening, both of which comfort Zorrie too. The “gift of music” another pleasure.

In these ways, Zorrie’s life reminds us of ours. Nostalgic in our memories of loved ones we’ve lost, and for simpler times when neighbors truly watched out for each other.

Another quote from the above mentioned French philosopher Michel de Montaigne reinforces the life-affirming theme: “We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud.” Hunt expresses this sentiment in fewer words: “The fragile film of the present must be buttressed against the past.”

The poetic rendering of a singular life humanizes the fragility of life, and shows us where to find strength and humanity.

Lorraine

P.S. The novel really hit home as my husband engraved our wedding bands with the inscription “Till Eternity.”

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The Sanatorium

How a remote mountain setting and atmospheric prose intensify an already intense plot (Crans-Montana, Swiss Alps; 2015 to present day): Warning: The Sanatorium is like nothing reviewed here. Psychologically suspenseful novels characterize books blogged about, but none single-mindedly focused on a crime, a murder. Actually, three murders and several failed or thwarted attempts.

The publisher categorizes The Sanatorium as mystery fiction – a different literary genre for this blog, and different from a thriller. Both include subgenres, whodunit and hard-boiled detective in the mystery category. British author Sarah Pearse’s gripping debut is a whodunit involving a detective: Elin Warner in her thirties on leave for the past year from her job in England due to traumatic professional and personal events. But the novel isn’t only a mystery. The rest is part thriller and part Gothic. Why tell you this?

Because: if you’re expecting a mystery without the horror of a thriller, this is not that novel as the murders are gruesome. You’ll viscerally squirm, feeling the way Elin does, feeling your adrenaline pumping. The Sanatorium is not for the faint of heart.

The set-up: Elin has been invited by her brother Isaac to the “absolute remoteness” of a mountaintop high-up in the Swiss Alps to celebrate his engagement to Laure, someone she was friends with growing up. They haven’t been in touch for years. The invite surprises her since she hasn’t heard from Isaac for four years, and didn’t know he and Laure hooked up. The party will be held at a newly opened, architecturally striking hotel appropriately named Le Sommet, a former sanatorium for TB patients. For someone under pressure to decide whether she has what it takes to return to her detective job, accompanied by her boyfriend Will whose also pressuring her to make a commitment about their relationship, her stress and the stakes are already high. Elin’s wits and stomach will be tested. Yours will be too. 

A funicular carries them from the town of Sierre to the ultra-modern yet Gothic feeling mountain resort. As soon as Elin sees it, “her body is reacting to something here; something living, breathing, woven into the DNA of the building.”

Meanwhile, Will, totally her opposite, is so easygoing the contrast between the two contributes to more stress when someone at the hotel goes missing and is later found dead. As if that’s not enough tension, an avalanche is approaching that will close every means of transport down (car, helicopter), so no one can get in or out of the hotel. Add to that mountains with sharp, jagged edges, along with some “edgy in that paired-back, European style” characters, you have the ingredients for a nasty brew. The weather is brutal, the hotel “austere” and “clinical,” and the murders are brutal too. So why review The Sanatorium on a blog called Enchanted Prose?

From a prose perspective, a Gothic element related to setting that enables scary atmospheric prose makes the novel a standout.

Pearse chooses specific words to elicit dark foreboding, creepy emotions that would not prime us as forcefully without the powerful setting and atmospheric prose. The prose is cleverly crafted to propel us forward in spite of the horrors. Another perspective is the crimes are so beastly you’re compelled to figure out who the perpetrator is and what’s the motive, echoing how driven Elin is. We cannot stop reading any more than Elin can’t stop putting herself in danger. We’re as baffled as she is as none of the few clues presented connect until we’re about 90% done, and then Elin and the reader are foiled again, and then one more time until the whodunit and why is finally revealed.

All the murders have a similar “signature” (the ritual unique to the offender): copper bracelets with numbers engraved on the back, the attacker is grotesquely masked, with another calling card left by the victims, a glass box with something repugnant inside. The glass, though, fits the excessive use of glass in the hotel rebuilding. So much glass, Elin feels more vulnerable than she already is.

Which brings us to a theme common in this blog: fiction inspired by history. The novel was inspired by the history of sanatoriums in the 1920s and 1930s through the fifties until the advent of antibiotics cured tuberculosis patients. Located in crisp, high-altitude, sunny mountain air in Europe (in the US too) for healing, Switzerland’s Alps, particularly in Davos, and other places like the Crans-Montana region setting were highly regarded treatment locales. Pearse once lived in Switzerland in Crans-Montana, so when she read about sanatoriums in a Swiss magazine it sparked the idea for the novel.

Staying true to history, once sanatoriums had served their purpose many were converted to other types of establishments, including hotels. Fictionally, the original structure of Le Sommet was built in the late 1800s by the great-grandfather of the new developer/owner, Lucas Caron, who spent eight years on his luxury project, which we learn was inspired by Joseph Dirand, a Paris architect, who designed in the minimalist style.

A chilling quote by Dirand prefaces the novel: “I have loved constraints. They give me comfort.” Constraints a key word to the murderer’s style, comfort twisted hinting at the motive. Since we weren’t aware of the significance of the quote, it’s easy to skip over it. Yet Pearse is announcing pay attention to her words. Turns out the conversion of sanatoriums did give rise to minimalism architecture, retaining the concept of airiness, lightness, cleanliness. Le Sommet embraces minimalism with “the air of the institution in stark lines, the relentless rectangular planes and faces, the modernist flat roofs,” and all that glass.

The novel oozes with prose that ups the ante of fear. Words like “sinister” depict the mountains; “smothering,” “suffocating,” and “choked” for the snow; “terrifying” wind; “lurid” and “obscenely bright” describing the sun reflecting on the water in the outdoor pool.

As for the whodunit: The novel opens in 2020, so Erin doesn’t know about the first victim, Daniel, the hotel architect, who was murdered in 2015, in the Prologue. Brother Lucas becomes a suspect as he’s obsessed with paying tribute to the hotel’s history incorporating cringe-worthy artifacts, yet he delayed the hotel’s opening for a year grieving Daniel, a close friend. Let’s say he’s a person of interest, and not the only one grieving. One by one other suspects are identified; some of these characters go missing and we’re back to square one.

Ellen sometimes frustrates us to such a degree we want to shake her shoulders as she does foolish things putting herself in harm’s way. We’re also in awe of how much she’s willing to risk to find a killer on the loose in the hotel before another crime is perpetrated. Will is frustrated too as he had high-hopes for what he thought would be a vacation, a chance for Elin to relax, to come back to him. Will she?

Feverishly we flip pages, finishing this edge-of-your seat 400 page novel in no time. Be grateful you’re reading it from afar.

Lorraine

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The Paris Model

Taking risks to pursue dreams, secrets, and love (rural Australia, Sydney, and Paris; 1922-1951): This splendid, twists-and-turns historical novel shows the power of grit, perseverance, and courage to change the trajectory of one’s life. It assumes “a world without risk is small and safe,” and asks if this is the right path to follow?

So many novels have Paris in the title, some about the fashion world, so we assume we know what this debut is all about. While we’re partly right about the glamour, it’s far more than that because Australian author, Alexandra Joel, tells us she’s “a keen student of art, fashion, history, and politics” and passionate about Paris. Incorporating what she loves, knows, and impressively researches (cited in her informative Author’s Note), The Paris Model has everything you’d want in page-turning suspense fiction against the backdrop of history in the early postwar years when Paris was liberated.

Joel was the editor of two Australian fashion magazines and wrote two books on Australian fashion, and splits her time between Australia and Paris, so she’s adept at writing atmospherically about the “wild beauty” of Australia as well as eloquently evoking the elegance of a European city that wasn’t destroyed during WWII.

The model at the heart of the novel is Grace Woods. Grace is a perfect name for her as she straddles two continents gracefully. Joel, though, didn’t invent her name as the real Grace Woods inspired the novel. The emerald green-eyed beauty turned heads and now turns pages. In the Author’s Notes, Joel shares how her novel came to be, when she was:

“Sipping tea in the fragrant garden of a good friend when, unexpectedly, she began to tell me the extraordinary story of her beautiful model mother, Grace Woods. As soon as I learnt about the mystery surrounding Grace’s birth, the tragedies that engulfed her parents and the astonishing coincidence that provided this beautiful, green-eyed girl with an entirely new identity, I was captivated.”

Grace isn’t the only character whose identity is kept secret.

Another interesting tidbit, from an interview, is that Joel’s mother was a Christian Dior model. Grace’s fictional mother was a fashionista even on the family’s sheep and wheat farm in New South Wales, Sydney its capital.

Grace’s mother’s name Olive isn’t as graceful as hers, perhaps for harboring a secret Grace overhears yet was too young to catch the meaning of, although she has her suspicions. Olive subscribes to fashion magazines Grace pages through, and hired a well-dressed French governess to tutor her daughter in the French language and culture when she was twelve, when the novel begins, instilling Grace with a fashion sense and “dreams of travel and adventure.”

Still, it took an enormous leap for Grace to leave the rural “bush” countryside of “wild beauty” to a “wildly different way of life,” to become a sought out model for the exclusive fashion House of Christian Dior, a demanding role that demanded “perfection.” Or as Joel depicts it, to go from exotic flora, fauna, and animals – kangaroos, wallabies, kookaburras, eucalyptus, and gum, melaleuca, red bottlebrush trees – to “an enchanting world, one that would fit her as perfectly as Cinderella’s glass slipper.”

Of course, nothing is perfect, which you’ll see in Grace’s childhood of losses and young adulthood innocence and despair, which led her to flee to Paris in 1948 at twenty-six with another secret. She arrived with an invitation to work as a “Parisian mannequin” for a fashion designer who “saved Paris fashion.” Later, she takes another leap into romance when she meets a handsome, charismatic man, Phillipe Boyer, a journalist who also has a secret. Which evolves into another leap: into a political spy story. He shows her another side of Paris on the eastern side: slum neighborhoods in Belleville at a time when Communism was rising.

One thing both Australia and Paris call for is the kind of quiet “daring” Grace Woods possessed, learned from a hardworking life gathering up sheep and wheat and enduring tragedies.

The novel opens with a brief Prologue dated 1922. Cryptic, it’s soon followed (page 18) with another hint about the mystery of her identity. Just enough of a clue to keep the reader guessing until it’s resolved much later.

Grace was blessed with a physique that could “show off the most desirable clothes in the world to the richest, most glamorous, and most demanding inhabitants.” Ravishing gowns made with the most extravagant materials that required modeling them with exquisite sophistication, including an ability to “disguise the complexity.” Grace’s early years taught her how to hide complex secrets.

At Dior, she models for celebrities like Princess Margaret, Jackie Bouvier (before she became a Kennedy), the Duchess of Windsor, and the red-headed “Love Goddess,” actress Rita Hayworth who had a traumatic childhood as did Grace. You’ll also be treated to other famous people, such as Pablo Picasso, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Julia Child, and lesser-known Evangeline Bruce, the elegant, finely dressed, socialite wife of the US Ambassador to France back then.

By unforth, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By SpiritedMichelle,
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Grace came to Paris she’d self-imposed a protective bubble because of what she’d been through. Eventually, she decides to enter the heady world of Paris’ legendary cafes, nightclubs, bars, and a ball. She’d already been dazzled when she’d left her isolated farm to visit a palatial hotel in Sydney to hear her father’s close friend Sibby play glorious classical music on the piano. Grace adored him; he called her Princess. In Paris, she becomes a fashion princess at Dior who “revolutionized” women’s fashions in the post-war years with the New Look. Dior saw in Grace a “cleaner, brighter outlook compared to that of the ‘tired people’ of Europe.”

During the postwar years, Dior was the “most important courtier alive today,” a statement that reminds us that by this time Coco Chanel had been rumored (and arrested) for being a Nazi spy. His New Look was characterized by “tiny, cinched waists” and “voluminous skirts” using “sinful yards of sumptuous fabrics” coming after five years of rationing, still going on.

Grace Woods experienced the impact of the war on Australia, reflecting the history of Australians helping England during the War.

Imagine what Grace felt like when fitted for an “ice-white ball gown with a tightly fitted satin bodice, a tiny waist, and a skirt composed of an unheard-of-quantity of silk organza and tulle”? With “mother-of-pearls, rhinestone beads, and sequins, each one painstakingly sewn on by hand.” Grace’s sadness lifts, but she doesn’t forget the secrets she carries.

By Son of Groucho from Scotland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Partaking in some of what Paris offered awed her. Like the Left Bank’s Le Chat Noir, where “a grander type of bohemian” clientele gathered, where artists, philosophers, and authors hung out. That’s where she meets Jacqueline Bouvier who befriends her, perhaps seeing their mutual elegance. Jackie’s appearance gives us a charming picture of the type of woman Grace was.

This is a novel you wish doesn’t end. Thankfully, we can look forward to Joel’s next novel, The Royal Correspondent, when it reaches America’s shores.

Lorraine

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A Room Called Earth 2

Embracing our differences (Melbourne, Australia, presumably present-day): Three reasons to choose A Room Called Earth, Australian writer Madeleine Ryan’s debut, to usher in a new literary year:

  1. What better time in recent history to read a novel about embracing our differences?
  2. What better time in our quarantined lives to reflect on what it means to be alone without feeling lonely?
  3. Combine #1 and 2 and you have the ingredients for a unique novel about a unique character who defies categorization. She has many strengths but is socially challenged.

Ryan has crafted a provocative novel set within 24 hours, seen through the eyes of a magnetic narrator who expresses herself in honest, no-filters narration and sharpened sensuality: a young woman, probably in her late twenties, early thirties, who lives alone yet has created an inner, earthy sanctum inside the rooms of her home and mind. She controls how much she wants us to know, or not. For starters, she never tells us her name. Perhaps to represent the universe of young women who wish to be valued for who they are, not by societal expectations and stereotypes.

What the protagonist wants to tell us, and show us, is how she feels and acts when invited to a party in light of her social difficulties. Her behavior is not black-or-white. Alternating between the party and her secluded home life, we get a fuller, complex picture.

The novel is aimed at rejecting labels, stereotypes, assumptions. The major one is not labeling her as high-functioning on the autism spectrum (ASD, autism spectrum disorder), since that label stigmatizes and lumps people into one mold, rather than see them as individuals.

Ryan practices what she preaches in the many articles she writes, advocating for the “richness of neurodiversity” as opposed to “neurotypical”. Her novel sticks to the same theme: “embrace who we are, in all our permutations.” And, when we do, expect to “see universes beyond our own that we never knew existed—and that are more peaceful, loving, joyous, and accepting than anything we could have ever dreamed of.”

One of the pleasures of reading this clever novel is we don’t look at the protagonist through our eyes, but through hers. We don’t need to know the full sweep of her life as we can learn a lot about her through the lens of the party. Which she points out she’s “legitimately allowed to be there,” as if the label would exclude her. 

Parents rightfully argue, and studies show, that a clinical diagnosis of ASD is of vital importance for early childhood interventions to dramatically improve the long-term outlook of autistic children. We wonder then what the narrator was like as a child? She tells us she has a therapist today, but what were her influences and supports in childhood? She mentions her grandmother, but barely says anything about her parents except they’re gone – until after the party, toward the end. 

Another question raised is what purpose does a label serve for high-functioning adults? She’s intelligent, well-informed, independent, and has many healthy interests: nature lover, environmentalist; animal lover; social justice for Australian Aboriginals and prisoners; exotic flowers and trees in her country, including the garden she nurtures; food, stars, moonlight walks. Keep in mind she never tells us she has ASD; her publisher does. Her refuge is “so psychedelic and sensual.” This is not unhappiness speaking to us.

But, she lacks a human bond. The party gives her a chance to do something about that. A tall order as she’s looking for the same “very grounding influence” she feels at home extraordinarily attached to her cat, who provides her with “a sense of wholeness that I rarely experience anywhere, or with anyone.”

Naming her cat Porkchop is notable since it’s the only name in the novel. Animals provide unconditional love, but people haven’t. She says she chose the name as a symbolic gesture since she’s a die-hard vegetarian – organic, “anti-oxidant-rich” food – that she treats as “sacred,” lighting candles to honor the sustenance and pleasure food brings, and to heighten the experience. She’s a pleasure-seeker, hoping to find some pleasure at the party. Does she find it?

A Room Called Earth is a breath of fresh literary air. It encourages us to think about the positive effect of making a sincere effort to understand, respect, and appreciate people’s abilities and gifts, rather than ignore or undervalue them based on bias or preconceived notion.

Take, for example, the question of whether we perceive our narrator as lonely? She tells us she loves herself and accepts herself. And yet, she candidly recognizes that “connection with my own species has become difficult.” Note become, implying she wasn’t always like that. What happened?

She mentions an ex-boyfriend, unnamed too perhaps to symbolize all male relationships that haven’t worked out. He’s cited since their relationship lasted longer than any other, ten months, which surprises her. Surprises us too given how self-aware she is of her social “struggles,” yet she believes the problem was him not her.

Despite social challenges, the narrator is looking forward to the party, yet conversation is difficult. Neurologically caused? Or personality-driven because she desires relationships on her own terms? She’s not interested in superficial connections; she wants meaningful ones.

We’ve been assuming the narrator is attractive. A man at the party confirms that, telling her she’s “very pretty.” A bona fide feminist, she doesn’t want to be valued for her physicality, “fantasy of womanhood,” rather her thoughts, feelings, and intense spirit. She views the people at the party judgmentally, cynically, wittily, also poignantly. The ridiculousness of the partygoers dialogue pops up when you least expect it jarring us, but her impressions resonate.

Our narrator isn’t shy. In fact, she loves calling attention to herself. Ryan wants us to be prepared for someone who has a mind of her own and speaks literally. The party invitation has her fantasizing about what she’ll wear, opening the novel with this catchy line:

“I decided to wear a kimono and high heels to the party because I wanted people to see me in a kimono and high heels at the party.”

No doubt the attention-getting outfit gets noticed. She desires that: “My dream is to leave people wondering, and nothing more. It’s safe, sexy, and I want to live there forever. Mystery is my favorite accessory.” She is mysterious, in an enchanting way.

Setting the novel in Toorak, a wealthy suburb of Melbourne, Australia adds another dimension to the protagonist’s mystique. Her neighborhood, called The Beverly Hills of Melbourne, raises another question: Who’s supporting her independent lifestyle? She doesn’t lack financially, indulging in luxuries and yet doesn’t work. We assume she’s inherited the home. Again, we don’t know if our assumption is correct until the end, after she leaves the party when an event happens that leads her to reveal some more about her parents. 

Sometimes the narrator’s mind is all over the place. Neurologically overwhelmed? Or because she thinks deeply about a lot of things and is acutely observant? The brisk chapters serve to not exhaust the narrator, nor us. Quite the contrary, as this is a thought-provoking, page-turner ideal for book clubs.

How can you not love a novel about someone who tells us over and over that’s it okay, actually a good thing, to love yourself and accept yourself? The first step to loving and accepting others.

Lorraine

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The Offing

An author who also writes poetry magnifies the beauty of an unlikely friendship between young and old that changes their lives (from Durham, northeast England, south to Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire; WWII aftermath, 1946): If ever there was a year when reading collectively saved the luckiest of us, 2020 is it. So it’s especially fitting that this final post of the year has one of the most satisfying closures for two very different characters – age, experience, personality, gender, social class – and for readers.

The Offing by British award-winning writer Benjamin Myers is only the second of his seven novels published in the US. A beautiful, wise, and poetic novel that looks back on one life-changing summer when a friendship – between sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard and Dulcie Piper, nearing sixty – blossomed, taking the young man under her wings when she needed him as much as he needed her. But she doesn’t let on that she’s terribly lonely, and that buried underneath her zest for life is a terrible sadness.

Robert narrates this poignant story, looking back at their relationship when he’s now old, to a summer when he was coming-of-age and Dulcie changed the trajectory of his life. On page three, he tells us, “I cling to poetry as I cling to life,” clueing us in how poetry made all the difference. Actually, the first clue to the importance of poetry in the novel, and for Myers, is when he introduces the story with a poem by a 19th century British poet, John Clare, a “quintessential romantic poet.” Clare, like young Robert, came from a poor family, loved nature, and was a romantic “daydreamer.” Clare resurfaces later when Dulcie introduces Robert to poetry.

When Robert tells Dulcie poetry is not for “people like me” – “coal folk” – she replies, “trust me when I say that everything you’ve felt has been experienced by another human being,” triggering her quest to find him “poetry you can relate to” from her extensive library. Poetry is among the many things he discovers at an uncertain age during an “age of uncertainty.” WWII may have ended, but food was still being rationed and people were downtrodden by the enormity of their losses. But Robert is restless, and also aware “life was out there, ready and waiting to be eaten in greedy gulps.”

The Offing is also fitting to close out the year with for a blog passionate about enchanted prose by an author who lets us know in the Acknowledgments that he has a “passion for the written word,” so much so he literally wrote the novel longhand in libraries. The novel is full of poetic writing since Meyers is a poet with several poetry collections to his name. A diverse writer and journalist, he’s also penned a non-fiction book, Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place, which I’d love to read since it likely contains the same marvelous, atmospheric nature writing and strong sense of place this novel has.

When Robert sets off from Durham, England (where the author is from), he’s ripe for escaping this northern region tied to Britain’s long history of coal mining. His father is a coal-miner, expects him to follow in his footsteps.

Northern English counties in 1851
By MRSC (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Robert’s background resonates with all people whose dreams and desires have been stuck in a cycle of repression and poverty without the resources to break free. Although he’s not an activist, Robert wants a freer life, one not limited in opportunities. Dulcie shows him a way, feeding his hunger, physically, sensually, and emotionally, because of who she is and what she offers.

Roberts dreams of the sea. The novel indicates Dulcie’s seaside village is in North Yorkshire. In a Guardian article, the idyllic village is apparently Robin Hood’s Bay (suggest you save for later as this link has spoilers). The contrast between his bleak homeland and the seaside landscape awakens him. Not nearly as much as Dulcie stirs his senses and spirit.

Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, England
By Snapshots Of The Past (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

When Robert sets off by foot all he has is a backpack and a deep appreciation for nature and wildness. The southerly path he wanders along takes him through a mystical, lush landscape of rivers, moors, and bright green valleys. So much “newness of the unfamiliar was intoxicating.” Since England is a country with a “right to roam,” he ends up crossing Dulcie’s property, which includes a well-lived in stone cottage, an abandoned shed, and an untamed, abundant garden that’s so overgrown it blocks the view of the water. Unimaginable to him.

Robert had no intention of lingering long at Dulcie’s home, but she’s a force to be reckoned with, graciously and convincingly initially offering him nettle tea in her garden. The first of much wine and lobster, and other overindulgences new to him. With her “heroic tolerance for alcohol”; love of luxury foods, particularly lobster; drifting music; an endearing servant-like dog aptly named Butler; and eye-opening conversations, he ends up staying the entire season. In return, he takes care of her unwieldy garden and does other odd jobs, anything but coal mining. As he grows comfortable with this colorful woman’s provocative words and declarations, he engages more and becomes invested in their relationship. This was the summer when time was measured only by the “clock of green growth, and marked by the simple routine of working, eating, swimming, sleeping” – and discovering poetry that spoke to him. “Poetry had been one more way of keeping the working men and women in their place,” but “poems belong to the world.” 

Dulcie has a lot to say. But if it weren’t for the deepening bond between the two, what she kept hidden would have remained a mystery. While we do learn about the profound secrecy, thanks to Robert’s perseverance and sensitivity, there’s still so much more we want to know about this extravagant, bohemian character who’s been friends with legendary writers, poets, artists, musicians. The lyrical writing makes it easy to envision a prequel to this novel about her full life pre-Robert. Cinematic, we can also envision a movie. 

The alluring dialogue flows back and forth between these two opposites: Robert is the shy, innocent, respectful young man from “a place where brickwork was dyed black by soot-smoke and whose skies billowed with coke dust.” Dulcie is the one who lives in an iconic British village who “always chose pleasure at all costs.” “A cajoler,” “a prodder,” and a “perfect mentor,” she sees something idealistic, rebellious, and adventuresome in Robert that she embraced when she was young. Unorthodox, she rejects conventions, authority, control. “Let’s cock a snook to time, for time is just another set of self-imposed arbitrary boundaries designed to capture and control.” The fact that she possesses such “literary dexterity” is Myers’ way of showing us the power of prose. Robert and Dulcie also show us the power of mentoring.

“Travel is search for the self,” Dulcie confirms for Robert. Fortunate that she traveled the world, we take pleasure in armchair traveling at a time when our travel options are limited.

“Whatever happens, make sure you live,” she coaches. Just “believe in yourself, Robert. That’s all it takes.” If only it were that simple. But it’s a powerful, uplifting message sent during another uncertain historical time when life is also vividly precious.

Wishing you safe, happy holidays during the year that was so different than any other. Thanks for reading. See you in 2021.

Lorraine

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